Why So Minimal?

Minimalism is a necessary step for any medium. Even if you feel little or no emotional or aesthetic connection to Piet Mondrian’s right angles and primary colors, or to the slow structural burn of a Phillip Glass piece, there’s no denying that those artists are directly confronting some deep, unavoidable issues—How little painting can I do, and have my work still be a painting? How little composing can I do, and have my piece still be music?—in order to get to the heart of why any painting or any piece of music works or doesn’t.

More than that, underlying these experiments is the question of how we quantify painting or composing or development in the first place. What do we even mean when we ask how much painting a painting contains, or how much music a composition contains, or how much gameplay a game contains?

Piet Mondrian actually did quite a lot of painting in order to arrive at his hyper-abstractions, beginning with a naturalistic image of a tree, or maybe a letter of the alphabet, and gradually whittling that image down to what he considered the most abstract form possible. Some of this process involved creating images again and again, each one more minimal than the last, which was a whole bunch of painting in the strictest sense. But Mondrian’s process also involved mathematics and data mapping—activities and disciplines that have always been ancillary to art creation, but were often considered somehow separate from art-making as such.

At its best, then, a Minimalist painting highlights the things a painter does that are not generally recognized as painting, while simultaneously celebrating the beauty and craft behind basic visual units. It is an attempt at purity.

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I mentioned games, and there is no shortage of pure minimalism in game design: Rod Humble’s The Marriage attempts to convey the dynamics of a long-term romantic relationship purely through gameplay, and is thus minimal both in terms of mechanics and, especially and pointedly, in terms of audiovisual aesthetics. Petri Purho’s 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness (above) does away with audiovisuals almost completely, and also manages to eliminate player input without eschewing win conditions; one wins the game by being the only person in the world playing it for four minutes and thirty-three continuous seconds (in reference to John Cage, har har), with one’s progress represented by a white bar slowly creeping across a black screen. Win and you get a white check mark. Lose and the game simply closes.

Needless to say, a great deal of art employs small-m minimalist aims and even techniques without necessarily being big-m Minimalist. I recently got to see an exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs, and I was knocked out by how he uses the most basic binary oppositions of photography—light and darkness, presence and absence, black and white, focused and unfocused, intelligible and unintelligible—to create something so rich and personal. (The images may not look like much on the Brandhorst website, or on any website for that matter, but do see these pieces in person if you get the chance).

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I also recently played Tomorrow Corporation’s eerie, confounding satire-’em-up Little Inferno. From the start of the game until the trippy, disruptive ending (which I won’t spoil), the game takes place on only two screens: a catalog for ordering all manner of consumerist stuff, and a “Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace” (above) for setting said stuff on fire.

Now, there is money to be managed, and a plot to be sussed out, and a few time-based mechanics borrowed from social games, and bonuses for burning various objects in combination, and the whole thing is not quite as nihilistic and boneheaded as it might appear. But also, at the same time, the whole thing is exactly as nihilistic and boneheaded as it appears. Here minimalism becomes active critique. The question is partially How little gameplay can we offer and still satisfy our players? But equally, the question is How little gameplay can we, or anyone, get away with?

In my next post, I’ll discuss a game that offers a less cynical but equally compelling answer to that question.

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